St. Louis Rams’ season will hinge on Sam Bradford’s bouncing back

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Yesterday, NFL.com’s “Around the League” writer Marc Sessler published a list of potential bounce-back candidates for 2014.

Bradford’s season, as you know, was cut short due to an ACL tear in Week 7 of last year, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Bradford’s name included among the likes of Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller and Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin, I’d argue that his potential bounce back will have a greater influence on his team’s success in 2014 than just about every other player the list included.

Sessler’s thoughts:

“Bradford’s career has been a milquetoast carnival of the bland. Handed mega-millions to save St. Louis from mediocrity, it’s hard to imagine the Rams sticking by the fifth-year passer if he doesn’t light the world on fire in 2014. I don’t love his chances for big numbers in Brian Schottenheimer’s hyper-conservative attack. Coming off major knee surgery doesn’t help. Bradford might be playing elsewhere a year from now.”

A very fair critique. Bradford’s return to the lineup in the fall (barring any unforseen circumstances) will be the beginning of a crucial season from his own personal standpoint as well as that of the future of the organization. Whether you’re a fan of the guy or not (for the record, I’m pro-Bradford), he hasn’t been the franchise-saving quarterback he was drafted to be.

This season will either cement his legacy as an enigmatic former no. 1 pick who couldn’t match the hype he was given, or it will be the beginning of the late bloom into a top quarterback that fans have been hoping for. What makes Bradford’s bounce-back case more intriguing than the rest is how much it will impact the team as a whole. The 2014 Rams will go only as far as he can take them.

Should Bradford emerge (or at least show signs of emerging) into a top-10 quarterback, it stands to vastly improve the team. It will mean that he has developed some sort of chemistry with the team’s untested group of wide receivers, which should open up the running game a bit more for running back Zac Stacy. It will add a welcome new element to the team’s evolving identity, one that hinged on scoring early and letting Stacy grind the game away in the wake of Bradford’s injury. When that didn’t happen and the team was forced to battle back from behind, they were simply ill-equipped to do so. Should Bradford pick up where he left off before his 2013 injury (14 touchdowns to four interceptions, 60.7% completions), the team should theoretically be in a much better position to win tight games and compete in the NFC West.

That is the best-case scenario. In the interest of balance, there’s also a worst-case. Should Bradford regress in 2014 due to a lack of confidence in his knee or simply the revelation that he isn’t the player that he was believed to be, the Rams are probably in trouble. Stacy has shown that he can carry the load, but the team’s inability to compete through the air late in games last season proved that he won’t win games by himself. Nor should he be asked to. Additionally, even if wide receiver Tavon Austin takes the next step in his development, it’s unclear how consistently he can break games open and alter their course. That goes for just about every other Rams receiver as well. The team doesn’t have enough offensive options to remain competitive should the team be again forced to endure sub-par quarterback play.

Getting back to my original point, some of the other members of Sessler’s list have similar comeback stories, but it’s unlikely that their return to form will have an impact on their entire team as it will with Bradford. The one exception is in Washington. The Redskins will most certainly live and die with the play of RGIII. However, should he falter, they do have one of the better top-to-bottom receiving corps in the league with the addition of DeSean Jackson and also a very solid running back in Alfred Morris. For that reason, I’ll rank him just below Bradford on the bounce-back vs. impact ratio that I just made up.

As usual, we’ll have to take the “wait and see” approach with Bradford’s return. The team will have veteran backup Shaun Hill waiting in the wings should he stumble and will also very likely have a shiny new mid-round rookie signal caller in tow just in case.

Regardless, all eyes will be on no. 8 in 2014.

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